The Data (plan) Ate My Homework

Teens and smartphone

Photo: Olaf Speier

In February, The Wall Street Journal featured a story that must have freaked out parents and guardians everywhere. In “Smartphones Go to School, reporter Charlie Wells cites an increasing number of schools nationwide that are allowing gadgets in the classroom for quizzes, homework and projects.

Massachusetts-based educator, Joni Siani, is an outspoken and passionate advocate of media literacy in schools and author of Celling your Soul: No App for Life. (This book was made into a movie by her students and was named best documentary at the Boston International Kids Film Festival last year.) Siani says,

Using smartphones in class is not only counterproductive, but downright insane. Assignments done on a gadget is homework in tiny chunks of thought with little reflection.”

Not to mention the excuses. Dogs will no longer be the scapegoats for missed assignments. Instead, maxed out data plans will be blamed for incomplete projects or homework that just didn’t get done.

It is well documented that overuse of electronics by children is detrimental to their growth. The Learning Habit, published in 2014, reveals that grades, sleep, social skills and emotional balance begin to decline after just 45 minutes of media use. A 2015 study by the London School of Economics found kids banned from using phones at school did much better on test scores than those who were allowed to use them. The impact of banning the devices was equal to an extra hour a week at school or a five-day increase in the school year.

Ironically, many tech leaders are anti-tech parents. Apple founder Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use an iPad. Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired also had strict rules on electronics use at home. When asked why, Anderson said, “Because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, and I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

At a time when adults are talking about balance, stress management and Internet overload, our children are increasingly hooked on technology. Classrooms should be a safe haven from distractions and a focused learning environment, but teachers are caving in to their students’ desires. Comedian Paula Poundstone said it best. In reference to excessive smartphone usage, she said, “Some kids like heroin. Does that mean we’re going to give it to them?”

Surprisingly, many people defend the use of smartphones in class. And not just those profiting from the technology. John Kim, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School, told the WSJ, “The teaching profession has yet to catch up with how students are using the devices.”

Apparently our overworked, underfunded, dedicated teachers don’t have enough to do. Certainly the Internet is a superb research tool. Except when the student gets sidetracked by Snapchat while looking up the per capita income of Zaire. But will writing a paper on a smartphone make the topic stick better? Why is technology driving the content of the learning? At what cost? Who really benefits?

According to Siani, encouraging more gadget use is not what students want. And she should know. During the past seven years, she has interviewed thousands of kids and parents about the effects of digital communication. The response has been eye-opening. Young people are desperate for relief from the demands of 24/7 connectivity. After a recent screening of her film at a Boston area high school, a student asked if she could “just vent” about the pressure from smartphone distractions. Last year, 25 teenagers at another school sat with Siani for two hours after watching the film, waiting to be heard. Many were in tears. (The filmmaker says this happens after nearly every screening.)

“Parents and kids look to their schools for leadership,” says Siani. Therefore, it’s important for superintendents, teachers and other educators to help kids unhook from their gadgets, instead of enabling them. Nationwide, rules on smartphone use in school varies, but consistent, digital communications policies in classrooms are needed that benefit the children. Not Samsung, not Apple or Verizon or Sprint, or the many other companies that provide the technology.

Steve Jobs must be rolling over in his grave.

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Deflategate’s Silver Linings Playbook

Served up nicely on a silver platter, Deflategate presents a valuable opportunity

Never in the history of modern times have we been presented with such a golden opportunity to teach our children as we have with the sensational ‘Deflategate.’ Its lessons can particularly resonate with adolescents, who know of Tom Brady and the Patriots, whether they are football fans or not. Young brains are so plastic, learning from incidents during this time will have has a long term impact, making the controversy even more important to talk about. In The Age of Opportunity, author Laurence Steinberg stresses how the adolescent brain is a sponge and that most memories are rooted during that period. In the book, he writes, “Nearly everyone recalls adolescence more powerfully than any other stage of life.”

Another reason to discuss Deflategate is because lying occurs, often frequently, among this age group. No longer under the constant supervision of schools, caregivers or parents, adolescents have more freedom to do things and go places that adults may not approve of. So it’s not unusual to stretch the truth, even among the most compliant, well-behaved kids. Child behavioral therapist and author James Lehman says that teenagers lie or tell half-truths for many reasons, from to avoiding things they don’t want to do, to covering their tracks. So any opportunity to teach them about the consequences of deception is a valuable one.

The other day, I was driving my daughter and her friends to the high school. Usually, I just listen in to their conversations like a fly on the wall. But when a voice from the back seat said that deflating the footballs was “no big deal,” I had to interject. Here’s what I told them:

Any action that gives one team a competitive advantage over another is against the rules. Period. End of story. On top of that, Brady was not upfront during those press conferences last winter. Months later, his this has come back to bite him. The Wells Report uncovered several incriminating text messages that implicate who was involved in the pre-game shenanigans and why. The findings conclude that Brady “more likely than not” was aware of what transpired. In a 20,000 word rebuttal, the Patriots organization fights back, providing some ridiculous interpretations of the messages. The “deflator” was talking about weight loss? The ‘Tom’ cited in the texts is not the football player? If these statements weren’t so comical, everyone would be mad about having their intelligence insulted. So whether you are on the field, in the workplace or in a relationship, being on the defensive is never a good thing. Remember this for the rest of your lives. As for letting air out of some footballs, that act, in and of itself, may not seem like a big deal. Lying, evasiveness, stonewalling and covering it up is. In a big way.  And if you do mess up, admit it. Brady could take a page from the Justin Beiber playbook. In the current edition of Seventeen magazine, the pop star explains, “You have to own up to your mistakes. You have to say I let you down.”

Brady could put an end to his public relations problems right now. By accepting his punishment like a man and the MVP that he is and taking it on that adorable, dimpled chin of his. His legions of fans will forget the incident long before the “balls” jokes have faded from Jimmy Fallon’s monologue. Not only that, he’ll gain favor among a whole new group of people for heroically showing us he’s not perfect and that he’s just like the rest of us. He’ll even be immortalized as a college case study for communications students. An upside has never looked so good! On the other hand, Brady can continue to deny the allegations as his credibility sinks like the sun after a late afternoon game. Recovering one’s positive image is difficult and can be a long time on the bench of life. Even for the most beautiful man on earth and the greatest NFL player that ever lived.

We passed the football field and the girls seemed like they were listening. I wrapped up my rant with a simple message that applies no matter who you are or what you do: Always tell the truth. And nothing but the truth.

Needless to say, the girls were a little late for school, but my message about honesty, maturity and accepting responsibility — all sprinkled with a little PR 101 — was right on time. For parents, educators and other influencers of young people, Deflategate is being served up on a silver platter right now as a life lesson. Don’t fumble it.